Belated acknowledgement of prolonged injustice

Everyone makes unwise decisions, and everyone does things they are not proud of. But of greater importance is whether or not they are open-minded and humble enough to admit that they and/or the governing systems they represent erred and/or need to take more advanced and apt measures to rectify the errors of the past. That is, perhaps, one of the things Sri Lanka lacked, and maybe the best Sri Lanka can do in order to move forward as far as human rights are concerned.

Yesterday (22), the Government, in the most unexpected manner, admitted that there are many, especially youth, who are awaiting trials, and in some instances, official charges, but have spent years in remand prison without having to face any proper legal proceeding. These long-overdue statements were made by Minister of Youth and Sports and State Minister of Digital Technology and Enterprise Development Namal Rajapaksa, whilst speaking in Parliament.

These sentiments expressed by a prominent minster, who also happens to be a son of former President and incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, are not to be taken lightly, not only because of his position in the current Government, but also because the points he raised are a reality the governments that came to power post war had chosen to ignore or make little of. Even though those governments took certain measures such as establishing the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the success and efficiency of those initiatives remain questionable, and the measures taken to serve justice for other victims of the war, especially those who are called “political prisoners”, are debatable. Perhaps the meagre number of measures taken by those governments was genuine; however, the lack of progress they made is alarming.

The sad reality of people being in detention for years without any court case being filed or any allegation being levelled officially has been talked about for years, especially after the end of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which entailed human rights allegations which were discussed at the international level.

It is unfortunate that these realities are being discussed only after the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the European Union (EU) Parliament have heavily criticised Sri Lanka’s human rights issues and even threatened punitive actions, such as the withdrawal of the GSP+ trade facility. At the same time, Sri Lanka choosing to discuss these matters openly even in this backdrop is admirable. However, the country has seen too many instances where politicians brag about the things they have done or are planning to do, and no promise can make any considerable difference unless and until they are put into action. Sri Lankans have passed the age and time they trusted and followed politicians blindly. 

The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA) is an integral element of this discussion, and in many cases, the underlying reason behind the prolonged detentions is the PTA. No Sri Lankan would want the country to face sanctions or severe criticism from the international community. However, if the accusations levelled in the UNHRC and the EU Parliament steer the country towards the correct path, it is a reason for those awaiting justice to breathe a sigh of relief. However, Sri Lanka needing such pressure to make the right decision to ensure the rights of the people is an unfortunate situation.

Sri Lanka is a debt-ridden country and is certainly not in a position to face the wrath of international human rights organisations. That is, however, not the only reason that makes it important for us to pay some attention to the worsening human rights-related issues. A country that brags about the culture and tradition moulded by Buddhism is inherently expected to be more sensitive towards people’s issues despite the size of the population that faces that issue.

Even though stringent laws and narrow-minded politicians have resorted to violating the people’s rights on the pretext of national security and stability, it is also a reality that Sri Lanka needs to use its reason and make sensitive decisions.